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A research guide for students interested in history which includes several useful databases and sites to help you with research.

What are Primary Sources?


Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories.  Primary sources may include:

  • letters
  • manuscripts
  • diaries
  • journals
  • newspapers
  • speeches
  • interviews
  • memoirs
  • documents produced by government agencies
  • photographs
  • audio recordings
  • moving pictures or video recordings
  • research data
  • and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons.

These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.

(RUSA, "Using Primary Sources on the Web")

Image source: OTIS College of Art & Design

Searching for Primary Sources

Consult the secondary sources you have used.

Did the author utilize any primary sources? Check for primary sources listed in the bibliographies of the sources you used.

Can you identify an important person involved in the area you are studying?

Try looking for items written by that person such as book, articles, memoirs, letters, etc.

Search WorldCat (a database containing items from libraries worldwide) for items written by that person. Do a web search for the [person's name] AND (diaries OR letters OR archive OR manuscripts)

Is there an organization that would have kept records on the event or topic you are studying?

Try tracking down that organizations' website to see if they have made any records available online.

Search for archives & special collections

Use ArchiveGrid to search archival collections worldwide

Search the Internet for your topic/event/person AND ("special collections" OR archive OR "primary sources"). More and more primary sources are being digitized and made available online.

Still stuck? Ask a librarian!

Archives & Special Collections to Visit

Local archives and special collections can be a treasure trove of primary source material on local historical subjects.

Tips for visiting:

Search collections online ahead of time

Archives & special collections staff may need to pull items ahead of time so for the best experience, get to know the collection and staff know what you would like to view.

Review hours & make an appointment

Some archives & special collections have different hours than the libraries in which they are housed. Consider making an appointment with an archivist or special collection librarian to discuss what materials might best support your reserach.

Primary Source Databases

Historical Newspapers

Digital Primary Source Collections: US

Digital Collections: Europe

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